The Benin authorities arrested five Nigeriens last week as tensions over an oil export blockade between the two countries deepen General Abdourahamane Tiani. © ORTN – Télé Sahel / AFP

Niger’s military government has accused Benin of kidnapping five Nigeriens who were on an official assignment to supervise and control the loading of an oil shipment at the Seme-Kpodji pipeline terminal.

The statement released early Sunday came after Beninese special prosecutor Mario Metonou announced on Thursday that the country’s authorities had detained five Niger nationals for allegedly entering Benin’s Seme-Kpodji pipeline terminal on false pretenses.

According to the prosecutor, the group was arrested on Wednesday, and at least two of them are agents for Niger’s military leadership who used forged documents to enter the port.

Niamey’s authorities have denied the allegations, claiming that the team works for the Nigerien branch of the West African Gas Pipeline Company (WAPCO-Niger).

“All these people kidnapped and held hostage nevertheless took a regular flight, completing all airport formalities on departure from Niamey and on arrival at the Cardinal Bernadin Gantin international airport in Cotonou,” the Nigerien government said in a statement.

Tensions between the two West African nations began deepening last month when Benin blocked crude exports via its port from landlocked Niger, demanding that Niamey fully reopen its border to Benin’s goods and normalize relations before shipments could resume.

Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine called the Beninese government’s decision to bar Niamey from using the port of Seme Kpodji, located 30km south of Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou, a violation of bilateral trade agreements between them.

Niger relies on Benin for crude oil shipments, and the blockade is said to jeopardize the country’s plans to begin exporting the product to China under a $400 million commodity-backed agreement with the China National Petroleum Corporation.

Multiple mediation meetings have been held between Niamey and Cotonou at the initiative of the Chinese side to resolve the dispute, but no agreement has yet been reached.

Relations between the two West African neighbors have deteriorated since Nigerien soldiers overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum in a coup last July.

Tensions escalate between African neighbors over oil blockade Tensions escalate between African neighbors over oil blockade

Niamey’s new leadership had previously accused Cotonou of supporting a cross-border invasion that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had planned with France’s backing to restore Bazoum’s rule.

Benin also enforced ECOWAS sanctions on Niger, including border closures, in response to the coup, which has been lifted since February.

However, Niger has kept its borders closed to goods from Benin, citing security reasons.

In the statement on Sunday, Niamey accused Beninese President Patrice Talon of working “under the instigation of foreign powers” and “increasing provocations in line with his hostile actions” against Niger.